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Asgholi village lost highest number of fishermen in the entire Phyan ravaged Konkan district. Six men from the village died while they were out in the sea fending for their families. The fisherfolk say that though the government was aware about the Phyan warning, it was not communicated to them.

“Normally when a storm is expected, we are informed either by customs or fisheries department. But this time we did not get any warning from the authorities,” said Shankar Katnak, chairman of Machchimar Sanghatan in Asgholi.

Sarpanch Sridhar Natekar explained that the fishermen left the village on November 11 like any other day, not anticipating any trouble. While six never returned, 17 somehow managed to swim back. “Had we received any warning, we would have stepped out at all that day. So many people wouldn’t have died and we would have had our boats too today,” said Vishnu Palshetkar, a fisherman who is now bedridden after he hurt his back in the storm.

When officials from fisheries department and customs were confronted, both of whom have offices at stone’s throws distance from Asgholi, the officials refused to comment. “We did have the warning but due to some communication error failed to communicate it,” admitted a fisheries official.

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Orphaned by Phyan

Yogesh Sadhwani

Sunaina Dophavkar (17) eyes are completely expressionless. Her tears have dried up and she seems completely at loss of words to explain her grief. The fifth standard pass has no clue what is to happen of her and her five siblings who have just been orphaned.

The Dophavkar family residing at Asgholi village in Guhaghar Taluka are talk of the entire district. Once an eight member family is now reduced to six, with the eldest living member being 17 years old. The lady of the house died a year ago due to cancer, while head of the family Bharat Ganu Dhopavkar died due to Phyan while he was fishing to fend his family. The six kids – Sunaina, Samiksha (16), Suraksha (12), Suchit (10), Sushmita (7) and Sadiksha (3) – are now orphaned and completely clueless about their future.

“My son left on November 11 morning. By 8 am some fishermen came back and told us that boat in which he was had overturned and he had gone down with it. The next day we found his body near Ranvi village located a little away from here,” explains Vijaya Dhopavkar, the kid’s grandmother. Their old grandmother is all the kids are left with now.

 Neighbours explain that after their mother died, the kids somehow managed to stay afloat and pieced their life together. “They were very close to their father. Bharat would do almost anything for them. In fact he always wanted all his kids to go to school but because all but one refused to go, he did not push them,” said a neighbour. Except for seven year old Sushmita, none of the kids go to school. Sumit did go to school a couple of years ago but dropped out and now refuses to go anywhere near the school building.

“Had we been educated, life would not have been as tough. But in our village though there is a school till seventh grade, education is not a priority with most kids,” regrets Sunaina. She adds that government has given them a large chunk of the Rs 3 lakh compensation package and many others have helped them financially. “What is the point of getting the money when we have no clue as to what to do with it. We girls cannot go on a boat and Suchit is too young to go fishing. Most importantly, we do not have anybody we can look up to anymore,” said a sobbing Sunaina, while three year old Sadiksha stares at her eldest sister with a puzzled look. 

Their grandmother says that some people have come forward to adopt the kids but she is no mood to give them away.

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If the recent Panthera study commissioned by the forest department and done by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) is to be believed, leopard attacks are imminent in urban surroundings near Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in the near future. The study is based on leopard scat (shit) samples collected, which reveal that the domestic dog makes more than half of the leopard’s prey these days. This according to surveyors indicates that leopards in SGNP have been venturing into human settlements quite often.

In the survey titled, Panthera study 08-09, BNHS collected 152 scat samples of which 117 were used for analysis. The scats were collected from May 6, 2008 to March 9, 2009 from along 17 routes in SGNP, which is spread over 103 square kms in Mumbai and Thane. 

A careful analysis of scats revealed that 47 per cent contained dogs while 23 per cent contained rodents, both of which are found in human settlements. Also during the survey residents of several areas near the SGNP pointed out that in the last five years leopard sightings in human settlements has increased considerably. Both these facts put together have made the researchers believe that the wild cats are straying into human settlements more often than they did earlier.

In the report it is stated that since 2004, the number of leopard attacks and associated deaths on humans has drastically reduced. In 2004 around 18 people were killed and 11 injured in various leopard attacks. This has come down to mere two injuries in 2008. “This can be mainly attributed to the massive trappings and imprisonment of 23 leopards in 2004 by the Forest Department from the most affected areas of SGNP. Two leopards from Thane and one from the Aarey Milk Colony were trapped from human settlements in and around the Park from 2007-2008,” states the report. “Despite this, leopard sightings have been increasing in most of the padas since 2004. Therefore, while the number of leopard attacks has reduced, the threat of potential attacks is in fact increasing,” states the report.

It can be noted that minus the caged leopards, according to forest department, there are 24 wild cats still in SGNP. More than 54 nagars and padas and the two revenue villages- Chena and Yeur- are situated inside the Park and the total population exceeds 250,000.

The report categorically states that leopard sightings have increased in the south of SGNP, which is towards Powai. “This only shows that leopards interaction with humans is increasing and will soon prove to be fatal for humans. Something ought to be done soon enough or we will have 2004 like attacks all over again,” said Krishna Tiwari, project head in conservation department of BNHS.

The report suggests construction of a high boundary wall around SGNP. “The proposed boundary wall is meant to span 32km in length and cover only a small portion of the 98km periphery of SGNP. Only 15 kms of the wall has been built to date. Leopard attacks on humans and domestic species can also be reduced by installing night lamps (as leopards tend not to stray into brightly lit areas), building enclosed latrines and having a person patrolling the padas at nights, especially during the monsoon when there is reduced visibility,” states the report.

Also reports suggests building of a corridor on Bassein Creek located in North of SGNP so that leopards can cross over to the Resrve forest in north or Tungareshwar wildlife sanctuary. “While leopards are able to swim, they are not inclined to do so and Bassein Creek is too large a distance to cross in order for the leopards to reach another forest area. Unless the corridor is built there is little hope for the long-term survival of the leopard in SGNP,” concludes the report.

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Man on a mission

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After having transformed Varachapada through his co-operative farming movement, Father George Kavukatt has started a Krishi Vidya Kendra to reach out to other villages in Shahpur Taluka 
 

He believes education is the only way to abolish poverty and fight hunger. At a time when thousands of tribal people residing in Thane district are starving to death, Father George Kavukatt has found a unique way to ensure that they don’t have sleep without food.If Father George, lovingly called Father Baba by the tribals residing in Shahpur Taluka, has his way vast expanses of wasteland will finally be put to use to cultivate crops. This he plans to do through the Agro Based Education Programme that his Deenbandhu Charitable Trust has initiated at the twin villages of Lobhipada and Pondyachapada, located three kilometers from Asangaon station.

“I am certain that this programme will change the face of the tribal belt in Shahpur. Locals here cultivate paddy on a very small scale. At a time when there are vast expanses of land yet to be cultivated, tribal youth while away their time hunting, fishing and roaming around in the forests aimlessly,” says Father Baba.  

Flagged off a couple of months ago, the programme is being run from Krishi Vidya Kendra at Lobhipada. “As of now we have admitted students from Lobhipada and Pondyachapada. The students attend school between 11 am and 4 pm. Once they are through with school they are taught modern methods of cultivation,” he says.In the near future Father Baba plans to induct children from other villages in the residential school. “Not more than three children from each tribal village would be admitted to the school,” he says. Why limited number of children from each village? “These children will go back to their villages after finishing school and educate others. We can’t accommodate all the children from every village, considering the fact that there are 200-odd villages in the Taluka,” says Father George. He adds that the programme is the only way, he can think of, to elevate the standard of living of the tribal residents of the area.

What’s more, a newly formed 13-member Prerna Adivasi Mahila Sahkari Samiti is managing the programme. “These are women from Pondyachapada and Lobhipada. It is important that locals take the initiative in the programme, which is going to benefit them in the long run. The Trust will support them in every which way but they must understand the significance of the programme,” says Father Baba.

Father Baba’s faith in the locals seems to be well placed. Hasibai Jettu Lobhi, chairperson of Prerna Adivasi Mahila Sahkari Samiti says that she has already started sending her children to school and convinced many others to follow her lead. “I don’t want my children to grow up and frantically search jobs in small scale units in and around Shahpur. This way they are learning to read and write and also getting to learn a lot about agriculture,” she says. 

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The tried and tested success story

For the residents of Varachapada, located 20 kilometres away from Asangaon, Father Baba is the man who saved them. “There was a time when I did not have enough money to buy two kilo rice to feed my family. But today, my society donates over seven tonnes of vegetables and five tonnes of tapioca every year to the underprivileged. We are where we are because of Father Baba,” says Vitthal Shivare, a resident of Varachapada, which is home to the 130-odd-member Thakar tribal community.

Father George started frequenting Varachapada eight years ago. In eight years he taught the villagers modern methods of cultivation. From traditional paddy cultivation, which can be taken up only once a year, the villagers now grow tapioca, onions, cashews, jackfruit and coconut. “When I first came here through Narayan Bua, the local priest, I saw that people barely had enough to eat. Gradually I started making friends with people and taught them modern methods of cultivation,” he says.

To begin with Father Baba bought a piece of land from Narayan Bua’s brother-in-law for Rs 10,000. Rather than getting the land transferred in his name, he transferred the three-acre plot in Bua’s wife’s name. “I made Bua the caretaker of the land and directed him to cultivate modern crops like tapioca which are economically viable and give better yield,” he explains.  Unfortunately Bua turned out to be a careless farmer. In two years his land gave very little yield. “But over a period of time I convinced others that agricultural yield can be better provided other crops are planted. Two other farmers agreed to try it out,” says Father Baba. The experiment worked well and gradually more farmers joined him.
Today Varachapada boasts of Prerna, a co-operative movement with six members, which not just cultivates their own lands but also leases out land from other farmers in the village. Of 100-odd acres land in the village, 25 acres is now utilised to grow modern crops. “When we lease out a piece of land from a farmer, we pay him rent on the basis of number of trees that can be planted on it. In addition to that we pay him a certain sum, as the owner is also the caretaker of the farm. Moreover if he does come to work in the fields, he gets paid Rs 60 daily,” says Vitthal, the chairman of Prerna.
“Till a few years ago we used travel several miles everyday in search of work. Often we came back empty handed. But now we provide employment to all the men in the village. We also employ several others from neighbouring villages,” says Ashok Wagh, another Prerna member.  In all this Sibi Joseph, Father Baba’s aide, assists the villagers. “I am totally convinced with what Fr George is doing for the villagers. I believe that if the lowest segment of our society comes up, the whole nation would benefit,” says Sibi.Sibi spends 12 hours of his day in Varachapada every day. “Father and I discuss the action plan at the end of the day at his residence in Asangaon. The next day I implement it,” says Sibi, who is responsible for clean drinking water systematic plantation, well that gives clean water, etc. Sibi often doubles up as a plumber, motor mechanic, farmer, electrician… the list is endless. “He helps the villagers in every which way. Over the years he has patiently worked with them. He knows that his job is very tedious and has to be done very patiently. Had he been the owner he could have forced the people to work. But he is working for their cause and he is well aware of this,” says Fr George.  Going a step ahead Fr George has introduced saving groups and Mahila Mandal in the village.  But all this took him eight years. “I realized that following the Varachapada-model, I could be in a position to develop at least one village in a span of some years. So I decided to start an agro-based education programme, which would educate the tribal community about high yield methods and crops,” says Father Baba. For the educationist and reformist its only the first step of a long road.

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Father’s co-operative movementTalking about his future plans Father George says he intends to take the co-operative movement to as many tribal villages as possible. “It took us eight years to turn things around at Varachapada. But now the locals at Varachapada are so stable and self sufficient that they are more than willing to reach out to others like them. We intend to start schools, technical education centres, promote dairy and poultry farming, etc for all round development of tribals,” he declares.

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A villager belonging to the Budh community at Arde village

July 2006 

Years after independence, the caste divide is considered to be more or less a thing of the past at least in developed states. But 75 km away from Mumbai, in Arde village, the divide is very much prevalent. Residents belonging to the so-called upper caste do not fill water from the same well as the ‘lower caste’ members do. Moreover, they do not drink, eat or even visit the houses of lower caste residents.

Located in Karjat Taluka, the village is known for its caste divide in the entire Raigad district. While all the other villages in the area have done away with the system, at Arde, the lower caste people still reside on the outskirts of the village. They do not get invited to weddings and at funerals they are made to sit away from the rest of the crowd.

 

Shockingly, the upper caste Kunbhi Maratha families do not drink water from any of the five wells that are used by the lower caste members of the Buddh community. “Till 1976, we were not even allowed to fill water from any of the wells in the village. We had to travel at least seven km everyday to fill water from the river,” says Madhukar Dhanavate, a retired schoolteacher, who has been born and brought up in Arde.

It was only in 1976 that the lower caste members came together and decided to put an end to the divide. “We wrote to the authorities stating that we would start filling water from a particular well that was being used by the upper caste Kunbhi Marathas,” says Dhanavate. As decided, the lower caste members started filling water from a well under the supervision of district administration.

 

Ever since the administration ahs dug five wells in the village and the Buddh community uses each one of them. “But sadly though, the upper caste people do not use the wells anymore. As soon as we started using the wells, they stopped using them,” says a disheartened Dhanavate, who leads the community in the village.

 

The upper caste residents have dug their own private well. Here the lower caste Buddh community members are not allowed. On record, the upper caste members say that it is a matter of convenience that they do not use the five government wells. They say that the five wells are far for them. “We have no issues using the five wells. Just that they are a little away from our houses. There is no caste disparity in our village anymore,” says Uttam Shelke, a respected resident of the village.

 

On the condition of anonymity the upper caste members admit that the divide is still as wide as it used to be years ago. “How can we drink water from the same well as theirs? At the end of the day they are lower caste people. Ever since they started using our wells with the help of government machinery, we stopped using them,” admits a villager. Another villager points out that none of the upper caste members eat or drink at lower caste members’ house.

“Only and only if it is essential for us to visit them that we go to their houses. We do not invite them for our weddings. And for funerals, we try and keep them away from the rest of the crowd,” says another member of the Kunbhi Maratha community.

As is obvious, years later, things haven’t changed much in Arde.

 

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Women from the upper caste

Kunbhi Maratha families

draw water from their wells  

About Arde

 

Located 75 km from Mumbai, Arde village is accessible from Vangani railway station on central line. The village is home to 50-odd Buddh community families and around 150 Kunbhi Maratha families.

 

Majority of lower caste residents are small time farmers. Those who are educated have temporary jobs. As far as the upper caste Kunbhi Marathas are concerned, most of them are affluent farmers. Some are even construction material suppliers. They also own cattle in large numbers.

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Neeta Sawant collecting water for her household 

May 2005 

KALYAN TALUKA: Neeta Sawant, a resident of Mharal Pada in Kalyan Taluka, dreamt of completing her Higher Secondary School (HSC) examination and taking up a job to support her family. But she couldn’t study beyond fourth standard. Her mother asked her to discontinue education and concentrate on drawing water for the household instead.   “I went to Vastishala in the Pada till the fourth standard. For further education I  started going to the Zilla Parishad School in Mharal Village (located three km away). But barely two months into the school, my mother asked me to sit at home and help her fill water,” says the dejected Katkari tribal. These days, Neeta spends a good four hours, from 3.30 pm to 7.30 pm, filling water from a small crack in the rocks, the only source of water in the Pada.  Neeta is not the only one who has had to give up her education for water. There are 30 others like her in the Pada, who have had to sacrifice their schooling. Daghdu Waghe, a daily-wage worker residing in the Pada, explains that water is more important for the locals than their daughters’ education. “For years now, we have been filling water from this narrow crack in the rocks. It takes anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour just to fill one vessel. If the girls start going to school, who will fill water for the house?” he asks. Waghe explains that while the mother takes care of household chores and the young boys in the family, the daughter is supposed to take care of family’s requirement of drinking water. So, as long as the daughters go to Vastishala in the Pada, the parents do not mind. But when it is time to go to the Zilla Parishad School, which keeps them away from home for at least eight hours, parents start objecting. 

“The fact that our girls are not educated does create problems once its time for them to get married. It is almost impossible to find a match for an uneducated girl. But frankly, water is more important than anything else,” admits Waghe. Neeta has lost all hopes of ever going back to school. “Sahabs (Government officials and politicians) come here once a year and promise to solve our problem. But nothing has changed over the years,” she says.  

Last year, the Zilla Parishad dug a well at the base of the hillock on which the Pada is located. But the well is of little or no use to the 24 households in the area. The water from the well is not potable. Now the Zilla Parishad administration has promised to dig a bore well at the base of the hillock and pump the water to the Pada. “Officials came to the Pada and left behind a 5,000 litre plastic tank. They promised us that within a week they would dig a bore well and pump the water into the tank. It’s been a month now and there hasn’t been any activity. We have lived like this for 70 years. This is not the first time we have been promised water,” concludes a sceptical Waghe.

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